Just after sunrise this morning, Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz went to El Corazon de Tejas — or rather the building that used to be El Corazon de Tejas, as the restaurant closed April 30 — to deliver a message in the form of a hand-painted sign she hung on the vacant building's front windows.
"With this building goes part of Oak Cliff heritage and history," the sign reads. "We will not support a business that destroys this historic building."
Within hours, most of the building was demolished, burying her message — and the building's history — in rubble. After Oak Cliff spent weeks trying to save the historic building, by 1 p.m. Monday, more than half of the building had already been razed. The building was originally sold to a developer who planned to build a CVS in its place, but in recent days, a for-sale sign was hung on the front of the building, raising questions about whether that deal fell through.
"As an Oak Cliff resident and Latina, I feel robbed," says Ferrell-Ortiz, who has lived in Oak Cliff since she was 5 years old. "I went to the restaurant when it was Tejano's every two weeks with my dad, and now it's gone. This was our history, and now it's gone."
El Corazon's building was at the intersection of West Davis and Zang, at the edge of Bishop Arts District. It's an area that's a bit of a sore spot for the neighborhood right now, as it's being systematically torn asunder piece by piece to make way for massive mixed-use developments built by developers with no ties to the neighborhood; massive cranes tower over that intersection, harbingers of the substantial change to come.
According to the Oak Cliff Advocate, the building was built in 1940 as a supermarket, Wyatt Food Store, later becoming several Tex-Mex/Mexican food restaurants (Wyatt's Cafeteria, El Chico, Tejano Restaurant) before becoming El Corazon de Tejas in 2013. When Oak Cliff City Council member Scott Griggs learned in April that demolition permits had been filed for the building, he reached out to the developer, Orange Development, in an effort to save it. Those conversations weren't terribly productive.
"I spoke with Jason Price of Orange Development about El Corazon," Griggs posted on Facebook. "Mr. Price indicated that a CVS is planned for the site and his group has completed the design and plans for the CVS.
Mr. Price implied the contract of sale was already signed or imminent and the demolition of the building would be occurring very soon."
Price wasn't exaggerating — the Oak Cliff Advocate first broke news about El Corazon's potential demise on April 6. By May 15, the building was already half-destroyed.
The loss of history isn't the only reason Oak Cliff isn't happy with the Cuellar family, the owners of El Corazon de Tejas. When news originally broke about the demolition permit and the possibility that the restaurant could close, the Cuellar family gave more than one news interview ardently denying that the restaurant was closing any time soon. In an April 12 story, John Cuellar told CultureMap the restaurant would be open "indefinitely."
"One of the main points I want to make is that these early condolences are extremely premature, and we're going to be serving for the indefinite future as we have for several decades," Cuellar told CultureMap.
Two weeks later, Gilbert Cuellar Jr. sent out an email stating that "our building is being sold and our lease has ended. Therefore, El Corazon will be closing at the end of business on Sunday, April 30, 2017."
But the fight to save the building continued. On May 1, Griggs posted an update on Facebook that had many in the neighborhood feeling hopeful: "Breaking development: At City Hall, Landmark [the Dallas Landmark Commission] unanimously initiates the landmark process for El Corazon."
But it was too late; the demolition permits had been approved.
The Cuellar family plans to "re-establish El Corazon in another location with the same menu and recipes as early as this summer," Gilbert Cuellar Jr. said in the statement about the restaurant's closure. "But for now, we invite you to visit Fajita Ranch in Plano." The Cuellars have hinted that the new El Corazon could open in Oak Cliff.
But not every Oak Cliff resident wants to see another Cuellar restaurant in the neighborhood. While some flocked to El Corazon for one last margarita, others vowed to never darken the Cuellars' doorstep again.
Ferrell-Ortiz says she has no plans to patronize future Cuellar-owned concepts.
"I want to frequent businesses that hold the same values as I do," she says.
In Oak Cliff Facebook groups, neighborhood residents say they don't plan to patronize whatever business replaces the historic building, either.
"If you live in North Oak Cliff and have any respect for the neighborhood at all, you should avoid whatever BS corporate franchise goes on the El Corazon site," Patrick Salvant wrote. "Do not give them any of your business. They don't respect our neighborhood's history. Why should we respect their commerce?"
Orange Development LLC has not responded to repeated interview requests and, as has been the case since April, Oak Cliff is wildly speculating about what may happen, some arguing that the Cuellar family had every right to sell the building to be demolished, others arguing that it shows disrespect for the neighborhood. At this point, however, those arguments are largely moot. The building will soon be gone.
"I'm sad that it was too late to landmark El Corazon, but I see this happening over and over again to other places in the neighborhood very soon," Ferrell-Ortiz says. "We have to be preemptive and protect OC's culture and history. It's what makes people want to move here in the first place."
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